Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

In the early 20th century, many composers were beginning to not be so pleased with the status quo of what Romanticism had set for them. Composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and Claude Debussy began to experiment with new ways or writing music. They began to experiment with new sounds, textures, idea’s, compositional techniques, etc. They, as well as other composers, reached success in their own ways, yet the world of music was still set in their generally Romantic ways.

It took a true compositional giant to rock the world of music forever, and such a piece of music came on May 23rd, 1913 with Igor Stravinsky’s strikingly famous ballet The Rite of Spring. The ballet premiered in Paris, and the performances primitive dance moves, dark music, and somewhat scary demeanor sent the audience into a full blown riot, and simultaneously into a whole new era of music. The Rite of Spring is undoubtedly one of the literary masterpieces that shifted classical music from the Romantic style into what we now consider the Modern style.

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Igor Stravinsky was born in Jume of 1886 in Oranienbaum, Russia. Stravinsky grew up n a musical household, his father being one of the leading basses of his day. Being surrounded by music at a young age, he started piano lessons at age nine, yet he was never considered much of a prodigy like expected. He was scorned from learning theory and composition at a young age, as well as for spending most of his time improvising rather than practicing. Even in a musical household, Stravinsky was never given free reign with his desires to compose. Stravinsky himself considers one particular event in his life to be his “most treasured memory” (Stravinsky, 1962).

At a young age, he was taken to the hear Tchaikovsky’s Symphony #6 (Pathetique). Stravinsky found himself completely enraptured by this music that he later on stated that this moment is considered the one moment in his life that his love for music began. From that moment on, Stravinsky desired to throw himself into the world of music, yet his father was completely against his desires of music. Instead, his father wished for him to be a lawyer. Stravinsky struggled in school, usually skidding by the skin of his teeth. He also struggled to please his father. These struggles lead him to law school, which was very unsuccessful.

Stravinsky failed most of his law school classes, and spent most of his time studying composers such as Rimsky-Korsakov, Wagner, Bizet, and Gounod (Teachout, 2000). After his stint in law school, Stravinsky received the opportunity to study with one of the leading Russian composers of his time, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. After the death of his father, Stravinsky began to study with Rimsky-Korsakov. During his studies he was exposed to an eclectic variety of styles and composers, such as Debussy, Franck, Dukas, etc. All of these composers, all of which compose in a vastly different style, helped to meld Stravinsky’s future cosmopolitan style.

After the death of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky permiered his first big hit, Few d’Artifice, otherwise known as Fireworks. This piece was written for the wedding of Rimsky-Korsakov’s daughter, and though it was received very well, it more importantly sparked an important business partnership as well as friendship with the Ballet Russes’ manager, Sergei Diaghilev (Thomas, 2010). Diaghilev’s curiosity was struck with this new composer’s idea’s. He then asked Stravinsky to write a ballet for him and the Ballet Russes to perform. With this new friendship and business deal started an all time success for Stravinsky.

His first commissioned piece for the Ballet Russes was Firebird. This ballet, taking on the more popular Romantic aesthetic of writing, became a raving success for Stravinsky, as well as the Ballet Russes. This being Stravinsky’s first big hit as a composer, he developed a relationship with well known dancer and choreographer, Vaslav Nijinsky. Nijinsky, who had made his mark on the ballet world with his work in Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (Thomas, 2010), would later on become an important figure in Stravinsky’s career. This first raving success with Firebird brought on two more commissioned ballet from Diaghilev.

The first of them being Pertoushka. This ballet, also being a great success, made Stravinsky a very well known composer, as well as a man to look out for in the music world. But his works, though well received, would never reach the amount of fame as his next work did, which he began work on shortly after finishing Pertoushka in 1911 (Grout, p. 831; Thomas, 2010). Stravinsky’s next ballet, The Rite of Spring, was first conceptualized by a strange dream of his. The dream was of a young girl in ancient, pagan Russia, who appeared to be dancing herself to death as part of a sacrifice to the god of Spring.

Upon conception of this dream, Stravinsky sought the help of artist, Nicholas Roehric, to fulfill the vision that Stravinsky saw. With the help of Roheric, Stravinsky was able to construct the plot line as well as create the scenery and costumes (Grout, p. 831). When Stravinsky began to work on the music itself, he treated it as his “child”, rarely telling anyone what it was that he was composing. He would state to Roheric frequently of how excited he was about this ballet and how the images of the ancient sages, and primal rituals would not leave his mind (Thomas, 2010).

Come 1912, Stravinsky had finished the first half of the score for Diaghilev and his choreographer, Vaslav Nijinsky. Both were wild about Stravinsky’s newest work, yet they both knew that Stravinsky’s striking composition might or might not go over too well with the rather uptight Parisian people. Stravinsky also began to play piano reductions for a small group of other people, who would quietly state to on another how horrifying his new piece was (Thomas, 2010). The whole composition was not finished until March of 1913. Throughout the rest of the spring leading up to May, work was mostly on the ballet itself.

Stravinsky’s avant-garde composition proved to be much for the dancers to swallow, and come May when Stravinsky came to Paris to check on the progress of his ballet. What Stravinsky saw was one hot mess. The dancer’s were struggling with the very non-traditional ballet style that Nijinsky had choreographed. Stravinsky’s use of polyrhythm, as well as a constantly changing meter and tempo that would change suddenly, proved to be almost too much to swallow for the dancers of the Ballet Russes. Even the orchestra was not adjusting well to Stravinsky’s work.

Many of the musicians would laugh at their parts, thinking that Stravinsky must have written the parts all wrong. Stravinsky is even stated to have said during one rehearsal “You do not have to laugh, I know what I wrote”. Many critics and artists were asked to attend the dress rehearsal before the premiere. Though the attendees were taken aback by this new work of Stravinsky’s, for the most part the feedback was positive and open-minded. This dress rehearsal performance would be considered the most calmly received of Rite’s early premieres.

The big night of the premiere was May 29th, 1913, in the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. This theatre was the newest of the opera houses in Paris and was known as the new hot-spot for the rich and famous to mingle, as well as a place for the avant-garde crowd to propel their new idea’s. The premiere was jammed packed, and expectations were high. Though tension between the avant-garde and the traditionalists who were gathered to see this new ballet were escalating, all we excited to hear what the newest composer of the time had to bring to the table of music.

Like most traditional ballet programs, there were two other ballets performed before Rite. Both were very traditional ballets that were rather pleasing to the audience, one of these ballets being Les Syphides, which was based off music by Chopin. This ballet is considered to be a “stereotypical ballet” in our modern standards. The music was of a Romantic style, which the people loved, and the ballet itself was traditional, pink tutus and all! Naturally after two traditional ballets, the people were expecting something to keep this cheerful vibe going. What the audience received that night would be anything but cheerful.

Upon the first downbeat, the tension in the hall was already escalating. No one in the audience was expecting to hear what was played, even in the first beat of the ballet. The first note of the piece, spoken by a solo bassoon up in its highest register, stirred confusion in the audience. No one had a clue what instrument was playing that note, simply because it is highly unorthodox for a bassoon to ever play that high in the register. Most famously, French composer, Camille Saint-Saens, while listening to this beginning statement turned to his neighbor and asked what instrument was playing.

The neighbor replied “Well that is a bassoon, Maestro”. Saint-Saens replied “If that is a bassoon, then I am a baboon! ” and stormed out of the hall. Shortly after the exit of Saint-Saens was the first curtain rise for the first tableaux (the low astinato in the strings). With Saint-Saens making such a scene, as well as the ominous music which was being played, the audience began to create a commotion. Audience members began to shout, “Get them a dentist! ” as well as many other cruel words, and the audience started an all out shouting match.

Naturally, with much commotion going out in the hall, it became very difficult for the dancers to hear the music, therefore completely throwing off the already extremely difficult choreography. Stravinsky, obviously shaken by the chaos that was taking place, managed to run off backstage to where Nijinsky was standing atop a chair, screaming out the counts while Stravinsky held on to his coattails trying to keep him from falling off the chair. Diaghilev, being aware that the audience would not take Stravinsky’s work too well, instructed the conductor that no matter what, through hell or high water, to keep on playing.

Therefore, through the riot raging on, the orchestra continued to play. By the intermission, the riot had gotten so out of hand that the police were called to stop the matter. Naturally, Stravinsky was shaken to his core by this premiere. There are many instances where audiences reacted very negatively to the premiere of a certain composition, but never had any premiere sparked an all out, violent riot.

Though most of the audience was completely appalled by the premiere, the avant-garde crowd loved it. In fact, even Debussy was quoted as saying “it was as if watching a beautiful nightmare. Stravinsky never stayed for the rest of the performance, but the conductor and the dancers managed to finish out the premiere. After the premiere, Rite was only performed six times. None of the latter performances were quite as explosive as the first. After a few years, Rite was performed again in Paris and was received in a much better light, now that the avant-garde style had become more accepted amongst the French. Rite is divided up into two separate sections, the first of these being “The Adoration of the Earth”.

The introduction is a soaring bassoon solo, written in it highest register, which makes the timbre nearly indistinguishable. This was meant to represent the earth waking up from its wintry slumber into spring. Along with interruptions from the English Horn and a low register clarinet, this opening scene represents the groaning of Mother Earth in preparations for spring (Thomas, 2010) “Argurs of Spring” follows the introduction. This is where the dancers first grace the stage. The strong astinato in the strings is a direct representation of the movement that takes place on stage.

It is to-the-ground, flat-footed, and mostly primitive. The erratic, false accents add to the eerie tone that is presented. As the old witch enters the scene, the bassoons take on a quick “melody” that maybe lasts two measures long. This melody is loosely based off of Russian folk dances. “Spring Rounds” brings on a sudden shift in the character of the ballet. This sudden shift began with an extremely loud chord, followed by a flute trill. An Eb and a bass clarinet then enter, playing a unison melody that is spaced three octaves apart.

This is to represent a solemn, sacred mood, as well as the introduction of the maidens, one of which will be chosen as the sacrifice to Mother Earth. The texture then shift from the very thinly textured clarinet duet (only about four or five instruments are playing) to a thickly scored, low string astinato, which is traded on and off with short bassoon and oboe interludes. What is being represented on stage is the dancers are worshipping the Earth by literally throwing themselves onto the ground repeatedly. Then the full orchestra enters with the same astinato, but instead in a higher register, and highly dissonant.

This brings the worship ceremony to a whole new level. With each repetition of the astinato, the intensity reaches a whole new level, until it reaches a point of chaos. “Ritual of Rival Tribe” introduces a rival pagan tribe of which interrupts their ceremony. In this section, the melody is being traded off frantically between sections, representing the exchange in battle. The battle commences until the next section, “The Procession of the Sage”. The entrance of the Sage brings the orchestra to a high, as well as introduces high-timbred percussion instruments, representing the stomping of the entering Sage.

Once the Sage has made its way to the stage, the texture thins to a pulsated type of melody, all of which staying in only a few notes. This is proceeded by a loud, frenzied, fully orchestrated section, giving a sense of celebration. The layers are simply layered over and over again until it is physically impossible to make the texture any thicker, and then it stops to a sudden silence. This then leads to the second large section of the ballet, The second large section of Rite is “The Sacrifice”. Starting off this new section is “The Mystic Circle of Maidens”. It is now dusk, and the maidens are now found in a wooded area, circling around.

The music is constantly changing meters, creating an unevenness, as well as the melody is creating a circling effect, perfectly mimicking what the dancers are presenting on stage (Green, 2010). This circling that the maidens are doing is supposed to show who is going to be the sacrifice to Mother Earth. Whoever trips twice while walking in the circle is the Chosen One who must dance herself to death, as the appeasing sacrifice to Mother Earth. As soon as one of the maidens trips twice, the music takes a sudden turn, with the introduction of 11 thundering beats of a bass drum.

This then is the transition into “The Glorification of the Chosen One”. This section is mostly percussive, with the percussion, and down bowed strings playing on the upbeats, signifying the gasps of air made by the others, and the overall evil chaos that ensues. “Evocation of the Ancestors” then introduces the ancestors as the maidens throw themselves to the ground, summoning them by doing so. With the introduction of the ancestors, a short fanfare is played, which is brought to a halt with a quiet astiato, followed by an ascending chromatic line by the English Horn, giving the bone chilling feeling of something rising from the earth.

This quiet anticipation begins to build, to which leads to the next, as well as last section. “The Sacrificial Dance” is the ultimate climax of the ballet. This is when the Chosen one begins her dance of death before Mother Earth. She is constantly jumping up and down, taking moments to contort her body in a chilling type of manner. The meter in this section never stays the same for more than maybe two measures. Plus the use of false accents adds to the uneasiness being exuded in this section. This section is the epitome of angst, being the most atonal, as well as the most un-rhythmic.

Constantly the orchestra is being relentless with the continual roar form the percussion, signifying the commands of the ancestors, egging on the Chosen One’s sacrificial dance. This chaos reaches a point to where it is almost unbearable, and then all the sudden it stops. The flutes then play a short run, pause, then the orchestra plays one last intense flourish as the Chosen One’s neck snaps and she is lifted up to the heavens (Thomas, 2010). The Rite of Spring is considered by most all musicologists to be the single piece that shoved the world into the world of Modernism (Ovchinnikov, 2010).

Though many composers such as Schoenberg and Debussy were making strides towards that direction, none of what they did reached the high of which Stravinsky’s Rite did. This ballet, not just in plot and execution, but also in composition, shocked the world into a whole new era of music. Though looked on at the time as an absolute embarrassment to Stravinsky’s reputation, we now consider Rite to be one of the most influential works in all of music. Stravinsky never wrote a piece that reached as much fame as Rite did.

Though his later compositions are just as skilled and highly respected, none of what he wrote in his latter years ever reached the same success as Rite did. As you look through all of Stravinsky’s compositions, you quickly realize the genius, which worked in his mind, but it is most shown in his work on Rite. He has helped influence a whole generation of music to follow, and will continue to influence. He will always be remembered as the one who was able to rock the music world into a new era. All within one night.